Remembering the Valley Parade fire – a tragedy that deeply affected the city of Bradford

By John Dewhirst

Previous features on Width of a Post about the Fire Disaster anniversary have all touched on the sense of unease among older supporters and those who were familiar with what happened on 11th May, 1985 about how the commemoration of that day has evolved. (Those sentiments can be read by following the links at the bottom of this page.)

In many respects it feels that the current orthodoxy of how to commemorate the disaster is alien to how it used to be. Veterans of the world wars must have felt likewise as they became fewer in number and younger generations inherited the prerogative of determining how to ‘remember’ events of which they had no experienced memory. Undoubtedly the manner in which 11th May, 1985 is commemorated will continue to evolve.

Whilst it was first and foremost a football disaster, it tends to be overlooked that 11th May, 1985 was a disaster that also befell the city. Aside from the 56 fatalities among those who attended Valley Parade that day, many more suffered terrible physical injuries and there were also mental scars.

The impact however was not limited to spectators given that the emergency services were called upon to deal with the fire and its aftermath. The impact was multiplied further when you take into account the fact that families and friends were all forced to cope with the trauma of what had happened. There are countless stories of bravery and unselfish dedication to duty as well as many private memories of sorrow and grief. This was equally a civic disaster and needs to be remembered as such.

Needless to say, what happened on 11th May, 1985 was as significant in the history of BCAFC as in the history of Bradford. In that wider context it can be remembered as a time when there was genuine unity between different communities and a real sense of common purpose and identity. Likewise it can be remembered for the resilience of the nursing professionals as well as the innovation that brought about the development of the Bradford Burns Unit. 

Arguably the disaster created an unprecedented test for the city but it can rightly be said that Bradford and its people responded with heads held high. It could even be claimed that traditional Bradford stoicism played its own part in the response. In fact the whole episode was wrapped up in Bradford culture and a local way of doing things of which we can be proud. 

Sir Oliver Popplewell, the judge who chaired the inquiry into the fire wrote of the victims, and Bradfordians in general, in his book ‘Benchmark’ – quoted by the late Paul Firth in his own book, ‘Four Minutes’ – as follows:

“I was astounded at their courage and fortitude, and indeed at the general reaction of the citizens of Bradford to the great disaster which had overwhelmed them. The grief and anxiety and anguish which the disaster caused cannot be overstated. But the citizens seemed to draw on an inner strength and rallied round.” 

Later this month Bradford discovers whether it has been successful in its bid to be UK City of Culture in 2025 and, given the desperate need for urban regeneration, hopefully there will be cause for celebration. The response to the Bradford Disaster was about grass roots culture and it would be fitting that if Bradford was chosen as UK City of Culture, the 40th anniversary of the disaster occasioned an appropriate reset of its commemoration.

Remembering but not forgetting – May 10 2021

Always remember part one and two – May 10 and 11 2020

Forgetting and remembering – May 12 2019

Remembering the survivors and not just the 56 – May 10 2018

Remembering May 11, 1985: The day everything changed forever – May 10 2015

Remembering May 11, 1985: Thirty years on – May 9 2015

Remembering May 11, 1985: There is a scarf – May 8 2015

Always remember – May 10 2014

Unforgettable – May 10 2013

Moving on in our own way – May 10 2012

Categories: Opinion


13 replies

  1. We received the following comment from WOAP reader Dave R:

    11th May 1985 , just a date for most people but to City fans and Bradfordians it’s a date ingrained in our souls. I was 31 and had taken my son to his 1st game v Gillingham, a few weeks previous, and sat in the old main stand in block F. He couldn’t see the game without sitting on my knee so it was a waste of a ticket really. A friend persuaded me to take him in the Midland road ‘shed ‘ lots of families in there. So glad we did!

    Every one has their memories of that day. If you were there you can’t escape them can you really. Even now around the date my thoughts travel back there, I still cry now, can’t help it.

    We began to leave knowing the match would be abandoned, so much smoke it was obvious the fire brigade would attend, so game over, but as I took my son and his friend along the side of the pitch in front of the Midland road I looked over and was shocked to see the fire creeping up and over the seating towards the roof! I couldn’t get those boys out of there fast enough.

    The minutes, hours, days and months that followed were shrouded in grief for all those lost and who lost, the injured and bereaved, and relief, that a little lad sat on his dad’s knee saved us physically from harm.

    I believe we have a duty to ensure that younger City fans ,younger players and people in Bradford and beyond, understand the significance of that date, 11th May 1985 .

  2. To the lads who smoke in the toilets at away games, think about your actions. If there’s one club that you don’t do that at, it’s Bradford City. Know the club that you support, it might be just a cig to you, but it brings back traumatic memories for others. Show respect to the ones who lost their lives and were injured and traumatised. It’s a special bond that we have as a club because a lot of us went through it. I can’t express my disappointment and anger walking into the toilets at Rochdale with some lads smoking in there.

  3. John, You are an excellent writer. This is another example of the sentiment you bring so proudly to our city and our football club. You capture completely how those who were there and all those who were involved or were touched in 1985. Thank you.
    Popplewell was right, “The grief and anxiety and anguish which the disaster caused cannot be overstated”. We know that the city continues to remember with quiet dignity and respect. We must make certain that all our younger people within Bradford and at the football ground understand how important and meaningful the tragedy remains.
    It would indeed be fitting that Bradford was chosen as UK City of Culture.

  4. That fateful day of May 11th 1985 shows the true endeavour of humanity. Of the heroism of the supporters and emergency services, to the tireless efforts of nurses, support staff and volunteers giving their time to help the suffering, fund raising for vital services or charities like what was at the time the burns unit.
    Through human adversity and disaster we see hope and strength of the people left behind. It’s why the terminology of ‘the 56’ has never sat well with me, almost becoming a marketing branding exercise on clothing garments and coffee mugs. Even the applause on the 56th minute, there was so much more to the disaster which seems to be forgotten.
    I’ll remember tomorrow, as usual with a quiet minute for all who suffered or went beyond the call of duty that terrible day. No bells or whistles, just a minute to reflect.
    Bless you all.

  5. You and I rarely see eye to eye in the past few years John but we seem to share the same thoughts and feelings on this issue.
    I am very uncomfortable with the way May 11th is ‘commemorated’ in recent years, to the extent that I chose not to attend the game on Saturday. I dearly hope that the ‘56’ chants and ‘minutes applause’, not to mention the appallingly tasteless hoodies and mugs, are discarded sooner rather than later.
    Your article is correct that it’s not easy for younger generations to uphold traditions without them evolving but they only need to ask those of us who were there and lived through that time, at least while we’re still here.

  6. I detest all the glamourisation of the number 56, those crass hoodies. Stand up for the 56 they chanted on Saturday, I stood up but just to see what was going on. Could feel folk staring at me cos I wasn’t clapping. I got out of that stand somehow, along with both my parents who were injured. I don’t need a hoodie or someone who wasn’t even there telling me what to do. Everytime I see a flare at a game and the smoke it brings back memories.
    The crassness of the whole 56 culture is sickening and not a fit way to remember those who died, the injured or the emergency services who helped that day.

    • It’s a Scouse-ification of the whole thing, I don’t think we want to become defined by 11/5.

      • Did not want to volunteer that sentiment myself but I agree wholeheartedly. The best and worst of times. Met with dignity,stoicism and generosity of spirit.

  7. I didn’t clap in the 56th minute. It’s not something to clap and chant about.
    Good points made about the wider impact on the Bradford community and it is so true.
    I was 11 and we weren’t there but….Mum, as a local District Nurse, used to visit the many injured in their own homes changing dressings for weeks afterwards. She said the people were so grateful to the nurses for their help and all were so thrilled to have seen City win that Championship.
    Dad, as a Policeman, had bobbies in his station working to identify bodies from melted plastic over timbers and police friends who tried in vain to save lives in that burning stand. How horrific.
    I remember a quiet little girl coming to my girl guides sometime later and me being asked to look after her in my patrol as she had lost her two brothers that day in May and was a little shy.
    For those reasons and out of respect to the families i prefer a moment of remembrance and reflection and will never buy a 56 hoodie.

  8. I would never buy or wear one of those crass hoodie things with 56 emblazoned on it, nor buy any merchandise with any reference to the city fire on it.
    I do not stand up for the 56 ! and neither clap for the 56 !
    I reflect in a minutes silence each year thinking of my thoughts at the time, as a 21year old lad stood on the pitch witnessing the scene unfold, and also I think of the victims of that day.
    That’s my way, and many others way of remembering.

  9. Unfortunately I think the whole ‘rememberance’ of the fire disaster will continue to evolve, and evolve way past those of us who were present on that fateful day.
    I too dislike the ’56 hoodies’ and clapping in the 56th minute and other virtue signalling ways of remembrance.
    These tend to be the province of younger fans and not those of us who chose to take the more stoically ‘Bradford’ way of quietly marking each anniversary.
    Remember the giant flag that was produced for Wembley in 2013. Up to two days before it would, had their not been intervention, large adverts covering the flag!
    Remember a certain Labour MP calling for a modern day enquiry into the fire disaster.
    This would have been costly and achieved nothing but cause lots of harm to the victims families.
    Only the intervention of a group of fans prevented this.
    The fire disaster, which as John says was a ‘civic disaster’ should always be remembered quietly and with due dignity.
    As it always has been from the very first anniversary.
    There is no need to try to increase its profile on a national or international scale.
    Those who were there dont need hoodies or to be told to stand in the 56th minute etc

  10. Everyone has their own way of remembering and paying their respects.
    I have just been discussing it with my wife. She remembers hearing it on the radio . Knowing I was there she waited anxiously for an hour until I got home. No mobile phones then.
    I always look through the list of people who lost their lives on that day , on the anniversary and it always upsets me when I see the number of children and the family groups who died. There is one group where three generations of a family were affected.

  11. Lots of thoughtful points in John’s article and in the contributions below. It’s clear that the direction some are choosing to take in relation to the disaster is causing unnecessary upset to those irrevocably effected that day.
    Given this, might it be time for the club and/or a supporters group to issue some sort of communication ahead of next May? It could take the form of brief, polite guidance on social media posts (e.g. please don’t post upsetting photos), a press release asking that fan’s wishes for discreet remembrance are respected, some awareness of the great work done by the PSBRU and how to donate etc…
    On the topic of awareness in younger, city-wide generations some local schools do dedicate an assembly each year to the subject. Perhaps some pre-prepared, and approved resources would give others the confidence to share this difficult topic with students.

%d bloggers like this: